A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group hoping to halt construction of former President Barack Obama's $500 million presidential center on Chicago's South Side can proceed.
U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey, who was nominated to the federal bench by Obama in 2014, ruled that Protect Our Parks has standing to sue the city because it represents taxpayers with concerns that providing land in Jackson Park to the Obama center violates their due process rights. The judge indicated that he doesn't want the litigation to drag on, and that he'll limit any fact-gathering before the trial to 45 days.
The proposed Jackson Park site is seven miles from downtown Chicago, is near low-income neighborhoods where Obama worked as a community organizer, and lies just blocks from the University of Chicago, where Obama was a law professor. It is also close to the home where the Obamas lived until he won the presidency in 2008.
The center would comprise 20 acres of the 500-acre park. Its centerpiece would be a 225-foot museum tower, surrounded by a cluster of smaller buildings, including a 300-seat auditorium. Supporters estimate the project would create 5,000 jobs during construction and over 2,500 permanent jobs. An estimated 760,000 people could visit each year.
Protect Our Parks has accused the city of illegally transferring parkland to the private Obama Foundation, effectively "gifting" prized land to a Chicago favorite son. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and tinkered with legislation to skirt longstanding laws designed to ensure residents have unobstructed access to lakeside parks.
"Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way ... to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab," the lawsuit says.
To make the park available for the project, the Chicago Park District first sold the land to the city for $1. Illinois legislators amended the state's Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there's a compelling public interest. The Chicago City Council approved the project by a 47-to-1 vote last May.
The Obama Foundation would pay $10 to the city for use of the parkland for 99 years, cover the costs of building the complex and be responsible for covering operating costs for 99 years. Once built, the Obama Presidential Center's physical structures would be transferred to the city for free, meaning the city would formally own the center but not control what happens there.
"They are essentially giving [property] to Obama ... for 10 cents a year for 99 years," parks advocacy lawyer Mark Roth said Thursday.
In his ruling Tuesday, Blakey threw out a claim that taxpayers' First Amendment rights would be infringed upon because tax money would be spent to reconfigure roads and traffic. The suit argued that taxpayers would thus subsidize any partisan political activity by Obama at the center.
City lawyers conceded Thursday that Chicago would pay an estimated $175 million to reconfigure roads to manage traffic around the center, but they also argued that Protect Our Parks misread the law, misrepresented how the approval process played out and exaggerated potential environmental disruptions.
The center was originally slated to open in 2021, though ground hasn't yet broken because of the lingering litigation. Some supporters of the project fear that ongoing litigation might lead Obama to decide to build the center somewhere else.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.